Gilbert and George exhibit at the National Gallery
Retrospective of the iconic art duo
This article is from 2010.
There’s something quite unnerving watching the three films that form the oldest contribution to this mini retrospective of Brit Art’s most enduring double act. Here they are, Gilbert and George, in grainy black and white, young men still in their 20s, but already suited and booted in postwar accountant chic and co-opting the iconography of Empire that subverts the politesse of the English establishment even as it flirts with its arcane protocols.
It’s more than 40 years since the knowingly Joyce-referencing ‘A Portrait of the Artists as Young Men’ depicted the timeless-looking couple not so much as still lives but lives in slow motion. And the post-bomb culture torpor they both preserve and channel through their (in)activity looks as archaic as the idyllic gin-o-clock ritual of their short ‘Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk’ and the ‘By Appointment’ seal that trails each film.
Only in the 1980s do they embrace the day-glo world outside where they can nestle next to pretty boys in ‘Existers’ looking like the indulgent grand-daddies of East London’s queer culture, while it takes until 1991’s ‘Faith Drop’, the most recent work on show, for the suits to come off completely in order for G and G to get naked and back to nature, their Mr Cholmondely-Warner-style celluloid exploits grainy remnants of a wasteland long since past.
This bite-sized primer is part of the third Artist Rooms series culled from the National Gallery of Scotland and Tate collections. Gilbert and George’s image is present in most works bar the cartoon blow-job and adjacent ejaculatory spurts of ‘Hunger’ and ‘Thirst’ respectively, and ‘Fallen Leaves’. This latter piece features the sort of weather beaten tramp who might have stepped from the pages of poet Heathcote Williams’ study of the eccentrics who gathered at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. Here, the tramp is tinged with the exotic allure that British colonialism in turns both fetishised and demonised. Like the provocatively amused young men in ‘Existers’, outsiders all, he stares defiantly back at the camera while England dreams on.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 624 6200, until 1 Nov, free.